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Honoring the Arts

The Bohemian's 16th annual Boho Awards

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The cultural ringleader of the Arlene Francis Center


It's Halloween, and Martin Hamilton has turned down one of the biggest parties in town. With DJs, dancing and cocktails galore, the event would have raked in plenty of revenue for the Arlene Francis Center.

"But in Sonoma County, everything is so run toward commerce," Hamilton bemoans, sitting on an old couch in the center's front room. "Entertainment and culture is so driven by money all the time."

For the last three years, Hamilton has grown the Arlene Francis Center into a lightning rod for the region's artistic community, operating the large brick warehouse on the edges of Railroad Square with an eye not toward money but toward art, community, social change and culture. For this, we're more than pleased to honor him with a Boho Award.

On any given week, Hamilton serves as manager, teacher, student, bartender, neighborhood liaison and guiding force at the Santa Rosa hotspot. In addition to music, the AFC regularly hosts art shows, film premieres, poetry gatherings, Renaissance music, dance performances, theater productions, food workshops, fermentation workshops, Bach choral recitals and just about anything else that meets the center's criteria.

"Part of it is, what constitutes a meaningful activity?" asks Hamilton, theoretically. "And sometimes you have to stretch to find the meaning of, like, a heavy metal concert. And then I do!"

Hamilton relates a story of welcoming a group of 18-year-olds to the center who'd hitchhiked from L.A. solely to see a headlining punk band; at the end of the show, one emerged from the mosh pit, sweaty and flushed, "and he said, 'Hey Martin, thank you very much. This was one of the best experiences of my whole life.'

"It was one of the times that I really appreciated that there was the old-fashioned part of me that said 'I shouldn't do this, this is dangerous' versus what turned out to be a loving mosh pit. I felt like they had gone to the Hajj, in Saudi Arabia, moving around the cobblestone."

Only Hamilton could compare a mosh pit to the Hajj, probably due to his illustrious background. Born and raised in St. Louis in a Catholic family of 11 siblings, Hamilton moved to Los Angeles when his father, a factory manager, was relocated. After his junior year of high school, he visited Haight Street in the summer of 1967, and everything changed. He attended USF, and was later hired at the New College of California in 1977.

As for the building at 99 Sixth St., it was eventually purchased by Hamilton's New College partner, Peter Gabel, under the banner of the Arlene Francis Foundation. (Francis, the charismatic Hollywood actress best known for her episode-stealing turns on the television show What's My Line?, was Peter' mother; his father was Martin Gabel, an actor who worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Humphrey Bogart.)

A former flour-processing plant that served, over the years, as a moving warehouse, a brewery, a winery and more, the building housed the Santa Rosa branch of the New College of California until its collapse in 2008. Soon, Hamilton started meeting younger music fans and bands eager to use the space as an all-ages venue. It wasn't long before art started hanging on the walls. Then a poetry organization came in for a weekend. Hamilton had harnessed the proverbial snowball and pushed it off the hill, and the center started gathering more and more snow.

"I do feel that many of the volunteers here really are such creative and wonderful people," says Hamilton. "It just shows you the capacity for human beings to do the right thing. So that motivates me. And just giving people a chance. Otherwise, the culture doesn't give them much chance."

And on this night, Halloween, instead of an alcohol-drenched meat market? The best of the Arlene Francis Center is on offer: the Crux performing songs from the original musical The Ratcatcher with actors from the Imaginists Theatre Co., live trapeze and breakdancing, tarot readings, African xylophone, black-light dancers and more, all under one roof.

"Hopefully, there's some of the best aspects of the work of trying to take seriously our life on earth and the responsibility of social change and fairness and equity and justice," says Hamilton of his work at the Arlene Francis Center. "And not forgetting the spiritual aspects of life—the way arts make you feel better, music and how it moves you in certain ways, and just the joy of it all."—Gabe Meline


West Marin's great literary center


From the outside looking in, the ecologically diverse, remote slice of West Marin seems an unlikely hub for world-class literary events. But Point Reyes Books, established nearly 12 years ago by husband-and-wife team Steve Costa and Kate Levinson (pictured), has fostered a growing community of readers, writers and lovers of all things local that has attracted top literary talent, earning a well-deserved Boho Award this year.

"We were friends with the owner of the Brown Study Bookshop, which carried primarily used books and was, at best, open a few days a week," says Levinson of the store's beginnings. "One night when we were having dinner with her, about a year after she first told us she was selling the store, she told us she was lowering the price."

Neither Costa nor Levinson had any prior retail experience, but the following morning, Costa woke up and told his wife that he wanted to buy the store. "Steve was not to be deterred by our being weekenders and both having full-time jobs," says Levinson. They purchased the store in May 2002.

"People tell us they appreciate how much we've added to the community," says Levinson. "I think it's hard to identify one aspect of what we do, as the bookstore is truly a three dimensional endeavor."

What the pair eventually created was not merely access to shelves of bestsellers alongside independently published and used books in their homey, hardwood-floored store on Highway 1; aside from big names like Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, Bill McKibben, Michael Ondaatje, T. C. Boyle, Pam Houston, Joanna Macy and Frances McDormand as featured guests at their many readings, the store has become the focal point for numerous successful community events.

Point Reyes Books is often a key collaborator and driving force behind fundraisers for area nonprofits, environmental field trips, author dinners and film nights. The store has raised a total of $320,000 for area nonprofits, and publishes the West Marin Review, a literary journal that features the work of local writers and visual artists. The store has hosted a Spanish language book group for a decade, and provides space for a local knitting group. They are also sponsors of the Point Reyes Farmers' Market, raising money for the last 10 years to help with their operating costs.

As if that doesn't keep them busy enough, they also organize the semi-annual Geography of Hope Conference, which brings people together to discuss the intersections of ecology, literature, art and film, often while noshing on meals provided by local farms and restaurants. "Geography of Hope" is a term borrowed from the late Wallace Stegner as he described our wild landscapes, a fitting title for a West Marin event. The 2013 conference focused on the work of Aldo Leopold, and offered several field trips throughout the region, including a visit to the Tomales Point Elk Preserve and a hiking tour and cheese tasting at Toluma Farms. Through the conference, Point Reyes Books even brought a permanent art installation to the community.

"We've held four Geography of Hope Conferences and two of them have had temporary public art installations," Levinson says. "But 'Our Lady of the Harbor' by David Best was so loved by some of the community that we raised donations and arranged for it to become a permanent installation."

Levinson attributes the continued success of the store to local shoppers, and to the tourists that stop in downtown Point Reyes Station. But anyone who knows the couple can attest to their kindness, generosity and commitment to being incredible booksellers. The spirit of community is almost palpable when one steps through their doors. They've created a book lovers paradise, and have helped strengthen the relationships among the creative talent that populates the ever-fascinating world of West Marin.

"People get to know one another in the bookstore and at bookstore events. Sometimes they strike up a conversation, sometimes we introduce them to one another, sometimes we ask them to work together on events we are organizing," says Levinson, who adores her customers and the greater bookselling community. "Our hearts and minds have been so enriched."—Dani Burlison

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